The witches of Macbeth beguile not only the title character but Shakespeare’s original and modern audiences. They are arguably one of the most celebrated aspects of this tragedy. Their often rhyming lines, sing-song phrases, and fantastical descriptions of their magic make them memorable and mystifying. There is something about Hecate and her followers that transform this play into something more than a drama about power, kingship, and control. Shakespeare’s inclusion of supernatural forces gives this story a larger scale and makes it appear grander because of the mysterious witches that know so much. As one reads their famous “Double, double, toil and trouble,/ Fire burn, and cauldron bubble” speech, it is impossible not to get into a musical pattern because of Shakespeare’s skill in writing the contents of the cauldron (4.1.10-11). While reading this act, I could not help but notice similarities between Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is an interesting pairing, as one is definitely a tragedy and the other a comedy, but both maintain an element of whimsy and supernatural, although in completely separate ways. A Midsummer was first performed around the year 1595 and Macbeth was originally performed in 1606. Perhaps Shakespeare is acknowledging his fairy comedy again, eleven years later, by inserting elements found in A Midsummer into the witches scene of Macbeth. Hecate states in 4.1 something that easily could be read in A Midsummer: “And now about the cauldron sing/ Like elves and fairies in a ring,/ Enchanting all that you put in” (lines 41-43). Shakespeare is conceivably adopting elements of his original fanciful play into this tragic drama because it did so well with the audience in 1595. There are obviously no cauldrons present in A Midsummer, but fairies do play a significant role in the comedy and it would be easy to imagine Titania stating Hecate’s line, although in a somewhat different manner. A more apparent relation between these two plays is the mention of spirits named “Puckey,” and “Robin,”: “Firedrake, Puckey, make it lucky;/ Liard, Robin, you must bob in” (4.1.47-48). Anyone who has read A Midsummer Night’s Dream knows of the famous Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck or a puck, the magical imp henchman to Oberon. I do not know the history of Elizabethan folklore, but I like to think Shakespeare is creating unity between the two dramas. Using the name of a key character of his earlier play and attaching it to a spirit in Macbeth shows genius. Interestingly, a fairy does call Puck in A Midsummer, a “hobgoblin” which may relate to the goblin-like witches of Macbeth (2.1.40).
What caused me to draw this parallel between these plays was the Spirit’s and Hecate’s song in 3.5 that is remarkably similar to a fairy’s in A Midsummer. They sing “Over woods, high rocks and mountains,/ Over seas and misty fountains,/ Over steeples, towers and turrets,/ We fly by night ‘mongst troops of spirits” (3.5.62-65). This is amazingly akin to Fairy’s 2.1 speech when Robin asks how the fairy is and the reply is: “Over hill, over dale, Thorough bush, thorough brier, / Over park, over pale,/ Thorough flood, thorough fire:/ I do wander everywhere (1.2.2-6). The repetition of the word “over” and the spirits and fairy both singing of flying and wandering high above all the earth is so alike. Shakespeare had to have been aware of the similarity and maybe recycled the same notion because it gives the witches a sense of other worldliness that the fairy encapsulates in A Midsummer. Both sections are also very catchy and would be great for an actor to recite with passion in front of an audience.
Finally, the speeches made by the witches and Titania regarding the gathering of materials is alike, yet different and appropriate for their genres. In A Midsummer, the fairy queen tells her fairy followers to “feed [Bottom] with apricots and dewberries,/ With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries;/ the honeybags steal from the humble-bees/… And pluck the wings from painted butterflies/ To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes” (3.1.148-150, 154-155). This segment has a pastoral, light, and magical quality to it. In Macbeth, however, the thrilling descriptions get darker: “Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,/ Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf/ Of the ravined salt-sea shark,/ Root of hemlock digged i’th’ dark,/ Liver of blaspheming Jew…” (4.1.22-26). These ingredients are sinister and cast an entirely different mood over the scene as compared to Titania’s scene. The gloom created by the witches plays well with Macbeth’s twisted, evil character. The characters in A Midsummer are more concerned with love and therefore have lighter objects in their list. It would be interesting to research and compare the supernatural characters of Macbeth to that of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s frequent use of the supernatural tells what the Elizabethan theatre audience found enticing and what he thought made for great drama, whether comedy or tragedy.